He may not be at his most electric yet, but there remain few more decisive players in the Premier League than Mohamed Salah.
The Egyptian was up to his old tricks at Bournemouth, his hat-trick firing Liverpool to a 4-0 win at the Vitality Stadium. As individual performances go, this was something special. It sent his side top of the league, with Manchester City set to take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge later in the day.
He’s struggling apparently, Salah. Not happy, not at his best, sinking amid the ridiculous standards he set for himself last season.
And yet he has 10 Premier League goals to his name. More than Harry Kane or Sergio Aguero, Eden Hazard or Raheem Sterling. He’s the division’s top scorer, along with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Since the start of last season, only Lionel Messi has scored more across Europe’s top five leagues.
He scores important goals, too. Seven of Salah’s league strikes have been the first goal of the game. When Liverpool need him to open a contest up, he does it. A priceless asset for any side; for one chasing the Premier League, it could make all the difference.
He struck first against West Ham and Brighton, against Huddersfield and Cardiff, Fulham and Watford. And at the Vitality Stadium, the 26-year-old was at it again.
He owed a little to fortune. He was marginally offside as Roberto Firmino took aim from 25 yards, but when Asmir Begovic fumbled, there was only one man reacting. Finish it first, look for the linesman’s flag second. It never came, much to the home fans’ disgust. "It had a massive bearing on the game," Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe said afterwards.
That was Salah's 54th goal for Liverpool, drawing him level with Philippe Coutinho. By the time the afternoon was over, he had gone past the Brazilian, as well as Graeme Souness, Peter Thompson and David Fairclough, in the all-time Reds list. Fifty-six goals in 74 appearances; his record, quite simply, is absurd. "We all know about his desire to score goals," smiled Jurgen Klopp.
If his first goal was about instinct, his second and third were about sheer quality and single-mindedness. The old Salah, you could say. But it depends if you think he ever went away.
It was certainly classic Salah the way he collected Firmino’s pass and drove at the Bournemouth defence, three minutes into the second half. Steve Cook tried to foul him, raking his studs down the Achilles. Salah grimaced, stayed on his feet and steered his shot across Begovic and into the far corner, via a slight deflection.
In a week when his manager was forced to defend a team-mate against accusations of cheating, here was the perfect antidote. "I like this mindset," said Klopp. Penny for Sean Dyche’s thoughts.
Cook, disappointingly, escaped even a yellow card for his challenge, but the defender’s punishment would come in other ways. First, he diverted Andy Robertson’s cross past his own goalkeeper to give Liverpool a three-goal lead on 68 minutes, then, 13 minutes from time, he was left on his backside as Salah produced his piece de resistence.
Chasing a ball in behind, he forced Cook into a weak backpass, beat Begovic to the ball, rounded him goalkeeper and then, with the angle narrow, chose to skin the goalkeeper again before slotting nonchalantly past Nathan Ake on the goalline.
Impudence at his very best. It was the first away hat-trick by a Liverpool player in the Premier League since Luis Suarez against Cardiff in March 2014; it’s high praise, but Salah’s impact has at Anfield has been comparable to that of the Uruguayan. Howe said he's among the best in the world, Klopp agreed. "I don’t know in the moment a lot of players who would have scored these two goals," said the Reds boss.
For the second season in a row, Liverpool won by four goals here. For the second season in a row, they produced the most impressive of away performances. A team performance, with big contributions across the pitch, from Alisson Becker to Joel Matip to Fabinho to James Milner, who played his 500th Premier League game at right back. "He would probably have preferred to play any other position on the pitch!" Klopp grinned. "But he did the job for us."
And so the challenges keep coming and they keep being met head on. Sixteen Premier League games, 13 wins, six goals conceded, 34 scored. How can you not be impressed by what Klopp’s side are doing right now? "I said a couple of years ago that we have to write our own history," Klopp said. His team are doing just that.
“Liverpool, Liverpool, top of the league,” rang out here, amid the driving rain on the South Coast. They are. And in this form, Salah can ensure they stay there.